San Juan County Sheriff, 2 deputies appear in court after allegations of misconduct

Posted at 7:40 PM, Aug 25, 2017
and last updated 2017-08-25 21:42:02-04

MONTICELLO, Utah -- The San Juan County Sheriff and two of his deputies spent the day in a Monticello courtroom, facing charges in a case where an employee alleged the sheriff pointed an unloaded gun at him and that the department didn't take the right steps in the investigation.

In the all-day preliminary court hearing against Sheriff Rick Eldredge, Chief Deputy Alan Freestone and Rob Wilcox, two witnesses took the stand for questioning.

The three each face similar charges. Sheriff Eldredge specifically faces felony retaliation, and misdemeanor charges of reckless endangerment, obstruction of justice and official misconduct.

A special agent for the state who investigated the case took the stand first.

He recounted his interviews with the complainant and the three now facing charges, and how Eldredge explained the incident, which the employee said happened in 2015.

The special agent said the sheriff at first said he didn't remember the incident, and later called to report he did remember it, but that it wasn't intentional.

Later on, the employee--who has since resigned from the Sheriff's Office--was brought up for questioning and cross examination.

The state asked about his view of the main incident in question.

He claimed Sheriff Eldredge asked him to quit the department, then weeks later at a firearms training at the gun range, the former deputy said he heard what sounded like the noise of a trigger from an unloaded gun behind him, followed by Deputy Wilcox chuckling, so he turned around.

"And then I saw a rifle pointed at my back," the man said.

"And who was holding the rifle?" The prosecutor asked.

"Rick Eldredge," the former deputy replied.

The Attorney General's Office, which filed the charges, is accusing Chief Deputy Freestone of not properly investigating the incident when the employee reported it.

But the defense attorneys said Freestone did the investigation as he was supposed to.

In their questioning and closing arguments, they said Sheriff Eldredge had been looking at the unloaded gun while at the range, and while pointing it, accidentally faced it toward the employee, who walked by at that moment.

"And then he's going like this," said Eldredge's attorney Peter Stirba, demonstrating how Eldredge was pointing the rifle. "He sees [the employee], and he moves [the gun]. I mean, these things happen. It's called 'inadvertent cover.' That's what happened here."

Stirba, along with the other two attorneys, pointed out that the employee didn't report the alleged incident until a year later. And, when he did report it, he didn't correctly identify when the alleged incident took place.

The employee said in testimony that he reported the incident took place in October 2015, but then later realized it had happened in May of 2015.

According to statements made by the defense attorneys that the former employee agreed with, he reported the situation after he didn't show up for a firearms test in May of 2016 and the department asked him why.

After the court hearing, the state wouldn't make any comments, but Stirba said on behalf of the defense attorneys that this is a serious case and they presented a serious argument.

"We're happy that we had our day in court," he said. "We're glad it is now resolved-- at least to this extent--and we eagerly await what the judge is going to do."

The state will submit a briefing in the next couple weeks, and the defense will write a response in the week after that.

Judge George Harmond said he will issue a ruling as soon as he can thereafter.